On the (Biblical?) Road

[For more, check out a previous post – click: Religulous Atheism]

The books of the bible have left an indelible mark on humanity’s cultural idiom, moreover because they are themselves already important, somewhat reinterpreted, summaries of different ancient strands. Throughout the ages, storytellers, novelists, directors, painters, sculptors, architects and musicians have consciously and unconsciously transmitted basic biblical sayings, motives, symbols and archetypes (René Girard is among those who reveals this, time and again, in his work on western literature). This continued tradition makes clear that “man does not live by bread alone…”

Up to this day, we create images and tales to gain insight and different perspectives on our lives. Stories aren’t just a way of entertaining ourselves to escape reality. On the contrary, they allow us to get in touch with and reflect upon questions which are part of our everyday existence as human beings. Beyond scientific questions and concerns, we are confronted with layers of meaning in our everyday experience which broaden our assessment of reality. To reduce the experience of sexual intercourse, for instance, to what can be said of it on a purely scientific level, is to mistakenly consider a partial description of the experience as the experience itself. That’s why we naturally develop a language to express and cultivate other aspects of the same experience, aspects which transcend the purely scientifically describable domain.

Biblical stories have always been part of the language of the soul, and they still are. Songwriters like Bruce Springsteen or Leonard Cohen – to name but two – very often use biblical motives to express their life experiences. For example, just recently, Springsteen recaptured the story of the prophet Jonah and the big fish – in his song Swallowed Up (In The Belly Of The Whale). [Click here for Springsteen’s interpretation of Christ’s Passion].

Although literalist interpretations of biblical stories are on the rise since the fundamentalist movement started in the 19th century, and since some atheists took over this approach only to come to opposing conclusions, a majority of Christians still engages in a creative dialogue with the stories as stories (meaning that they are viewed as attempts to also symbolically and metaphorically convey real and profound human experiences).

It’s a shame that some people dismiss the anthropological and cultural potential of the bible because they “don’t believe in a burning bush that can talk”. As if that is expected! It’s like thinking we should believe Prince made love to a car in the song Little Red Corvette. Maybe it’s wise to remember how people approached the biblical stories during Antiquity and the Middle Ages. The important Christian thinker Geert Groote, for example, writes the following around 1383 A.D.:

“No child believes that the trees or the animals in the fables could speak. After all, the literal meaning of the poems or of the epic writings precisely is their figurative sense, and not the sense the bare words seem to hold at first glance. Who would actually believe that, as the book of Judges tells it, the trees would choose a king and that the fig tree, the vine, the olive tree and the bush would have responded to that choice in that way or another? Christ uses all kinds of images in his teaching. Matthew the evangelist even says that Christ never spoke without images. And even though it is Christ who uses these images, I do not think that those things actually (literally) took place.”

Nevertheless, some people today think they can approach the biblical stories as attempts to answer questions of the natural sciences like we know them today – apparently not realizing modern science didn’t exist in a, well, pre-modernist era. Reading a book of natural sciences to know what the bible is all about (or vice versa) is like reading a cookbook to assemble a piece of furniture.

Biblical stories should be approached from the point of view of storytelling and what this entails on a cultural level in general. Throughout history biblical stories have always been open to different interpretations, generating different (layers of) meaning. They were considered highly symbolical stories, used to highlight the depths and transcending nature of any authentic human experience.

CLICK HERE TO GET A BASIC UNDERSTANDING

OF THE PRINCIPLES OF ANCIENT AND MODERN (HISTORICAL-CRITICAL) BIBLE INTERPRETATION

Sometimes people ask: “How do you know what is to be considered symbolical?” Regarding ancient or literary texts in general, that’s a wrong question. For even historical events were only told when they were considered as transmitting a significance beyond a certain place and time (a “trans-historical” meaning). Once you get to know the basics of the biblical “idiom”, it’s not very hard to engage in a creative and personal dialogue with biblical texts, “knowing” how to read and interpret them (without expecting one, “final” interpretation).

Maybe we get a better picture of what I’m writing here if we compare this kind of dialogue with the way we keep on developing and interpreting particular images, stories and myths up to the present. That’s why I assembled some pop and rock songs using the modern mythology of the road and the car. Jack Kerouac (1922-1969) really instigated this mythology with his famous novel On the Road. Although inspired by autobiographical events, the story remains an allegory for every person’s “life journey”. In Kerouac’s own words: “Dean and I were embarked on a journey through post-Whitman America to FIND that America and to FIND the inherent goodness in American man. It was really a story about 2 Catholic buddies roaming the country in search of God. And we found him.” (Leland, John (2007). Why Kerouac Matters: The Lessons of On the Road (They’re Not What You Think) – New York: Viking. pp. 17).

So, take a look and a listen at the (excerpts of) songs I assembled in seven sections, and ask yourself if it’s really that hard to “understand” that they’re also about an inward journey (moving from alienation of self and other towards following the – divine? – dynamic of a love which saves and which allows, obeying its call, to rediscover oneself and other). Modern cultural archetypes (“highway” and “car”) stand side by side with religious and Christian ones (“highway… to hell”, indeed).

Maybe you’ll also understand what the general idea of these seven sections is all about? “Loss and redemption” would be a fine interpretative starting point. Never mind the Catholic imagination of Bruce Springsteen, among others… Enjoy artists like Willie Nelson, Ben Harper, Joshua Kadison, Toto, Metallica, The Killers, Green Day, Hanoi Rocks, Prince, John Lennon and Tracy Chapman – and many more!

CLICK TO READ THE SONG LYRICS (PDF)

CLICK TO LISTEN TO THE SONGS:

Bruce Springsteen’s Passion

Bruce Springsteen‘s take on the story of Christ’s Passion certainly reflects a profound spiritual awareness of what this event is actually about. In an episode for VH1 Storytellers, Springsteen meditates on his song Jesus was an only son, and brings out the universal and existential truths the story of the Passion reveals.

CLICK TO WATCH it right here:

Click here to read a full transcription of this video.

Springsteen’s interpretation of the song’s ending is especially moving. A transformation takes place. Whilst in the beginning of the song Jesus is comforted by his mother Mary, at the end it’s the son who comforts his mother. Mary is asked to respect the particular destiny of her child. Jesus chose the path of compassion and love. He was touched, so deeply, by the suffering of the outcasts that he couldn’t do anything else but reach out to them. By associating him with these scapegoats, he eventually became a victim himself. In refusing to take part in a social system that constructs itself by means of sacrifices, Jesus was eventually sacrificed himself.

Following Springsteen’s reasoning, Jesus cannot start some sort of ‘civil war’ to defend himself, because that would make him the imitator of his persecutors – Jesus would thus become a sacrificer himself, a ‘prince of this world’, a ‘Muammar Gaddafi’… Christ’s kingdom, on the other hand, is ‘not of this world’. Jesus follows, in the song’s words, ‘the soul of the universe’ which ‘willed a world and it appeared’. Indeed, by withdrawing from vengeance (i.e. the imitation of the persecutors), Jesus creates the possibility of a new world. Imitating the one who ‘offers the other cheek’, the one who forgives and approaches his persecutors and betrayers with compassion, allows us to accept our own and each other’s weaknesses and iniquities, without us being victimized or ‘crucified’ for doing so…

At the end of Springsteen’s song, Jesus seems confident that his ‘Heavenly Father’ would ultimately refuse the sacrifice of his son – and this confidence is reflected in the stories of Christ’s resurrection. Jesus fully imitates ‘the One who doesn’t want sacrifices or victims’ and therefore he is said to be the ultimate incarnation or ‘materialization’ of Love: A bruised reed shall he not break, and smoking flax shall he not quench, till he send forth judgment unto victory.” (KJV, Matthew 12:20). Bruce Springsteen speaks of this mystery of the incarnation at the end of his ‘sermon’:

“Whatever divinity we can lay claim to is hidden in the core of our humanity… When we let our compassion go, we let go of what little claim we have to the divine.”

Love seeks to be concrete and ’embodied’. The very nature of Love is to throw off its spiritual garment, to ’empty’ itself from the ‘sacred’ realm in order to become ‘flesh’ – which is called ‘kenosis’. The story of Christ’s Passover can be considered a pinnacle in our clumsy attempts to express this reality. However, if these attempts produce songs like Bruce Springsteen’s Jesus was an only son, we should be grateful, as we are comforted by the fragile light of hope amidst our own ‘darkness on the edge of town’.

The sports-minded Jesuit Patrick Kelly wrote the following on Bruce Springsteen’s faith and his Roman Catholic background in a column for America Magazine (The National Catholic Weekly) – February 10, 2003 (click here to read):

Faith, hope and love have always played a part in Bruce Springsteen’s songs, but this has become more explicit in recent years. Springsteen’s willingness to talk about these themes also is relatively new.

The Rev. Andrew Greeley’s article, “The Catholic Imagination of Bruce Springsteen” (click to read Am., 2/6/88), seems to have been a catalyst in this regard. The Catholic novelist Walker Percy read the article and wrote to Springsteen in early 1989, particularly interested in the fact that Greeley described him as a Catholic. “If this is true, and I am too,” his letter read, “it would appear the two of us are rarities in our professions: you as a post-modern musician, I as a writer, a novelist and a philosopher. That and your admiration of Flannery O’Connor. She was a dear friend of mine, though she was a much more heroic Catholic than I.” Walker Percy died before Springsteen responded to his letter, but the musician wrote in a four-page letter to Percy’s widow:

“The loss and search for faith and meaning have been at the core of my own work for most of my adult life. I’d like to think that perhaps that is what Dr. Percy heard and was what moved him to write me. Those issues are still what motivate me to sit down, pick up my guitar and write.”

Percy’s nephew, Will Percy, subsequently interviewed Springsteen about the formative influences on his song-writing for the Harvard psychiatrist Robert Coles’s magazine Doubletake in 1998 (click here to read).

I assembled some excerpts from this interview. Click here if you’re interested.